As a young child, years before the first Harry Potter book was published, I sat at my mother’s kitchen table mixing together anything I could find into a tall glass and calling it a potion. Now, this was just pure imagination and I’m sure that none of my concoctions were palatable, possibly even so bad that I’ve blocked out having tried them, but why did I even partake in this activity? Why did I also make all sorts of rather insane looking robots out of empty tins leftover from dog food, popcorn, or cookies? Well, this may just be simple childhood creativity (before the internet came into existence), but it may also serve as a clue as to why some people choose to pursue a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) career, or even just possess a strong interest in STEM, over other options.
You may have heard of something called the “maker movement” or heard the buzzword ”tinkering” being discussed in the field of education lately. The maker movement is discussed in the education field as a powerful way for students to learn, especially when it comes to concepts that appear difficult or too abstract. It’s hands-on learning involving everything from 3D printing, to robotics, to sewing; basically, it encourages an explosion of creativity. The maker movement provides an outlet and way for all students to learn based on that one key ingredient that every child possesses: imagination. While a makerspace — a workspace that is supplied with all the ‘maker’ materials one could hope to have — tends to be spoken about primarily when discussing STEM classes and the influence they may have on those who go into STEM careers, making is easily integrated across disciplines and is beneficial to a student’s self-efficacy in terms of problem solving.
Here at Indiana University, we have our very own makerspace, the Make Innovate Learn Lab, which I was lucky enough to recently visit and get a chance to ‘play around’ with some of the items available for use. The MILL, as it’s commonly called, is located in the IU School of Education and contains laser cutters, 3D printers, LEGOS®, crafting materials, and all sorts of items that future educators and IU researchers are using, in order to eventually incorporate these types of activities into classrooms, and improve student learning overall. Just walking past the MILL tempts you to go and find the person who has the key so that you may go inside and start building something — anything! Items I have seen on display as I walk by include laser etchings of various animals, T-shirts with beautiful patterns, 3D printed architectural structures, and a wooden T-Rex (only about 10 inches high, sadly). Beyond the computers and 3D printers, you can also see bins full of fabric, pipe cleaners, circuits, tools, wires, and yarn — just to mention a few things. I was able to visit the MILL with Dr. Adam Maltese and his pre-service secondary science education students, who had not been previously exposed to makerspaces in their K-12 schooling. Nevertheless, these students were excited to learn how they might bring these types of activities into their own science classrooms one day. I was even able to work with one group to build a robot on wheels! Although we were at first frustrated with the building process, once it started working it was amazing. At least one of us was also able to drive it in a straight line (it was not me).
So, should making be a focus to encourage more people to go into a STEM career? Maybe. That point is still being actively researched at IU and elsewhere, but the bottom line is that hands-on learning is vital for education across disciplines and leads to students being more adept at solving problems and thinking critically. Not to mention that tinkering is just plain fun; my mom still has a picture of one of my tin robots, Henry.